2023 Book Review Book Reviews Fiction

If We Were Villains

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Rating: 5 out of 5.

On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.

A decade ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extras. 

But in their fourth and final year, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make-believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent


God this book was good. 

If We Were Villains was an ode to Shakespeare. There’s no other way to put it. Filled with constant quotings of Shakespeare, parallels between his works and these characters’ lives, and a Shakespearean tragedy to top it off, it’s clear M.L. Rio knows and loves this famous playwright. The book even follows Shakespeare’s classic five act structure. Can it get any better than that?

Throughout the story you witness the complex nature of each character and their relationships, and things get tense fast. My heart was beating in my chest and like every tragedy known to man I couldn’t help but scream in frustration at every decision. You’ll get PTSD from reading Romeo and Juliet in high school and reading about each dumb move leading to inevitable demise.

Truthfully, describing their decisions as dumb is downplaying their weight. One aspect of this story is exploring how much each decision was truly laced with tragedy and pure human need. Were the actions of these students justified? Were they being selfish? Was there something bigger?

By bigger I mean that this story plays with the idea of fate and destiny being the control of our lives (which is an obsession of Shakespeare’s). The main character Oliver speaks of some impending feeling leading to some doom. He later on labels it as a guilt for things of the past, present, and at the time future. Did these students truly have agency? Or did the stars deal them a catastrophic hand? At the end of the story Oliver says that he really didn’t have a choice, he was just playing the part given to him. Can we accept this? If everyone was only playing the part given to them does it make this even more tragic or lift some of the weight? 

So many questions and so little time. 

Running circles around your brain, now you are left to ponder the existential question of destiny and whether it’s a valid excuse. Not sold on this book yet? Let me cut to one of my favorite aspects of this book. The plays. 

Since this story is about Shakespearean actors there are descriptions of each production they partake in. My favorite, which is also the first play described to the reader, is their production of Macbeth on Halloween. On special holidays the school our characters attend sets up a production of a play, except everyone is given their parts in secret. No one knows who will play who or how the play will go. Exciting, right?

Oliver is granted the part of Banquo and as the play unfolds you learn that his best friend is Macbeth. The tension builds ever higher and each scene is fantastical. The play takes place outside and is almost like a truly immersive production. I wish there was a troupe who would reenact this version or even better that I could step inside this book and watch. 

If We Were Villains was an outstanding novel. Covering big Shakespearean concepts and nurturing a great atmosphere, I can easily recommend this book to anyone and everyone. While fate isn’t the only (or the biggest) topic covered in this book it is clearly one that latched onto my brain and I hope other people who will read this will get just as excited and have their brain’s juices flowing. 

Let’s Talk:
  • Have you read If We Were Villains?
    • Did you enjoy it?
  • Are you a Shakespeare fan?

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